What if the Christmas Cracker hadn't been invented when it was? No, this is not the opening line of one of those corny Cracker jokes but a serious question. What if, here in 2007, you were a businessman and some young fellow offered you this quite flimsy decorative paper object as a new money making concept? You would probably smile politely and show him the door. But what if he told you that his invention would still be going strong 150 years later? Almost certainly you wouldn't believe him – after all, how many products survive for that length of time virtually unchanged?
But in actual fact, the Christmas Cracker is a pretty good business proposition. Bright, colourful, appealing to the eye, cheap to make, harmless, something which creates fun for all ages, almost guaranteed sales at the Christmas period, a good mark up on whatever content you put inside it and total acceptance as part of the nation's Christmas tradition in a relatively short space of time following its invention.
But hang on a minute! Isn't this the sort of product that every captain of industry and entrepreneur dreams about? Seems too good to be true but would you, as a hard headed businessman take it on? Obviously the young Tom Smith – the Cracker's accepted inventor thought it had potential way back in the 1840's/1850's and time as they say has only proved him right! In a light hearted moment one can imagine Tom going down to his local pub and his friends saying "Hello Tom, still messing about with those silly paper things? They'll never come to anything you know, you're wasting your time!"
Well, any detractors were wrong and over a century and a half later, Tom Smith's and its competitors (and there have been quite a few) must have produced billions and billions of these fragile paper items, created to give fun but born to be destroyed and possibly deserving of the title of the ultimate throw away product! From a social point a view, how much money must crackers have generated within the economy over the years and how many families have depended upon this humble little product for their livelihoods? Crackers it seems certainly have not let the side down and it is sad in a way that Tom Smith himself died in his late 40's and never lived to see the great blossoming of his product to its heyday in the first 20 years of the last century.
However, it is the very fragility and throw away nature of the product that causes difficulty when it comes to research as I have found to my cost over many years. How often do avid ephemera and packaging seekers turn up complete and in tact boxes of Crackers over 100 years old? You can guess that the answer to that one is – virtually never.
Hard facts and physical examples are difficult to unearth and from my own point a view, even though in 1989, I was lucky enough to stumble upon the only known photograph of our hero, I have found Tom Smith something of a mystery man. Take into account various fires and all the destruction of the Second World War when much wonderful archive material met its end in war torn London, then the difficulties of putting together a really accurate history of the man and his product becomes apparent. It's also not a situation that keeps students and collectors of ephemera today altogether happy. Notwithstanding, there is some material around and even if it is in relatively short supply, there is enough to enable one to put together at least a broad brush history and, coupled with a bit of educated but I hope not overly speculative detective work, two and two sometimes do actually make four!
But what of the man himself? Information is pretty scarce but copious trawling through various censuses have yielded the fact that Tom Smith, the son of Thomas (a grocer) and Pricilla was born on October 18th 1823 but had sadly departed for the big Cracker factory in the sky on March 13th 1869 probably from stomach cancer at the unfairly young age of 46. For those who might like to try to dig a little deeper in this area, be prepared to encounter the Victorians' love for the names Thomas and Martha (Tom's wife) and the frightening number of people with the surname Smith, at which point the reality of the search for information hits home in a big way!We do know for sure however that Tom Smith was a Londoner, that he started in business on his own in the mid 1840's and we do know the locations in East London from where his business operated. Further, his origins in the confectionery business are reasonably easy to confirm but there are quite a few periods especially in the early years where there are gaps.
The earliest Tom Smith archive material in the Victoria & Albert museum in London offers his catalogues covering confectionery, superb cake decorations and fancy goods from the 1870's in which Crackers or "Cosaques" as they were known in their infancy are also listed. Further examples from the late 1870's and 1880's at the English National Archive at Kew and some of my own archive material from the 1890's show significant growth on the Cracker side of things.
Trained originally as a graphic designer, my own greatest enthusiasm from amongst surviving Tom Smith material and that of other cracker companies has to be for the sheer quality and inventiveness of the graphics used on the box labels which, at their best are superb. The range over the years was enormous and firstly Tom and subsequently his children (he had six!) after he died, were forward thinking and enthusiastic in embracing the use of publicity and advertising together with the presentation of their beautiful Crackers, wonderful scraps and amazing box imagery.